“Extraordinary” Case of Organ Donor Passes Cancer to Four People


There are rare cases of organ transplants that pass infectious diseases to recipients, but a new case shows that it can also transmit cancer.

Four people in Europe received organs from a donor and developed breast cancer. Three of the patients died from cancer.

No Sign of Cancer

The donor was a 53-years-old woman who died from a stroke in 2007. The researchers from the Netherlands and Germany documented the case and reported it in the American Journal of Transplantation.

Doctors found no medical conditions that would exclude her from organ donation, and many tests showed no sign of cancer. Doctors took the kidneys, lungs, liver, and heart and transplanted them into recipients. The patient who received the heart transplant died shortly after the transplant, of unrelated causes.

A woman who received the lung transplant became ill 16 months after the intervention. Doctors found cancer in the lymph nodes in her chest, but the cancer cells were breast cancer cells, and the DNA of these cells showed they came from the organ donor. The cancer spread and the lung recipient died at a year after being diagnosed with cancer.

The other three patients who received the liver and a kidney were notified and had to take tests, but they were negative.

Then, in 2011, the liver-transplant patient was diagnosed with cancer: the patient had breast cancer cells inside the liver. Not wanting to undergo another liver transplant, she chose radiation treatment which was helpful, but cancer returned, and the patient died three years later.

The patient who received the left kidney was also diagnosed with breast cancer six years after the transplant, in 2013. Cancer spread to many organs, and the patient died two months after the diagnosis.

In 2011, a 32-year-old man who received the right kidney was found to have breast cancer cells in the received kidney. The doctors removed the kidney; the patient didn’t take drugs to suppress his immune system. He went through chemotherapy and ten years after the transplant, he was still cancer-free.

According to the director of organ transplantation at Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, New York), Dr. Lewis Teperman, who was not involved in the study, this case was very uncommon.

“The organ supply is incredibly safe,” he said, explaining that the organ donors receive rigorous screening, tests include a family history for disease, and many lab tests. In this case, the donor had undetected cancer and it might have had small metastases spreading to the organs and still remain unseen with screening or imaging tests.

Moreover, the recipient patients are more likely to help these cells grow because they take immune-suppressants drugs to help their body accept the new organ.

The report concluded that there is a low rate of cancer transmission from an organ transplant, implying that “current practices of donor screening for malignancy are effective,” adding that if one recipient get cancer from an organ, doctors should remove the other organs from all other patients too.


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